by Bentley Little
Published August 2008 by Signet Books
I’ve been a fan of Bentley Little’s for years now; whenever I’m in the horror section at Borders, I check to see if there’s a new Little book out that I haven’t read yet. Some writers have compared Little to King, Straub, Barker, and other greats in the horror fiction field. One blurb on one of his books, from Stephen King, describes Little as “A Master of the Macabre”; and on Little’s latest book, The Academy, there’s a blurb from King that describes Little as “Horror’s poet laureate”.
The first book of Bentley Little’s book that I read was The Ignored. That book is, in my opinion, Little’s best; not only is it a fine horror novel, but I think it could stand on its own as a respectable mainstream novel, with the likes of Upton Sinclair or John Updike. It’s the rather hokey supernatural stuff at the end of that novel, in fact, that are its biggest undoing.
Likewise with his 1998 novel, The Store. That novel can be read as a great condemnation of the influence that major “big box” retailers such as WalMart have on small towns in America. It’s great satire, another brilliant novel unfortunately done in by overly dramatic supernatural influences at the end.
Most of Little’s books are like that: unfettered and unbridled condemnations of large institutions and their dehumanizing effects over regular people. I’ve never met the man (I did have the opportunity to chat with him online once), but I have this image of Little as a card-holding NRA member, secluded on his property in Arizona and probably voting Libertarian. The dehumanization in Little’s books are usually shown as an institutional supernatural horror, which often brings people, particularly those in authority, to their absolute worst, in brutal and quite often sexually explicit ways. In The Association, we get a glimpse of how a home-owner’s association can drive a typical homeowner to utter ruin. The Policy shows a family devastated by an evil insurance corporation, sort of Michael Moore meets Freddy Kreuger.
In his more recent books, however, it feels to me that Little is scraping the bottom of the barrel in his search for ways in which he can demonstrate the inhumanizing effects that large institutions can have on people, and his supernatural elements are becoming more and more banal. In Dispatch, which I believe is Little’s strongest novel since The Ignored, the “big bad” at the end turns out to be just another misshapen, evil beast. And to be honest, I’m not even sure I got the point of The Vanishing, his 2006 novel.
In his newest novel, The Academy, Little takes on charter schools, and the result is, unfortunately, disappointing. While he handles the trope of a haunted school much more adeptly than Michael Paine did in The Night School, there’s still quite a bit that’s lacking. The dehumanized victims of the supernatural forces are brutal and vicious in typical Little ways, and in typical Little fashion we witness most of it through the eyes of people who are on the periphery, affected by the forces but not altered by them. But here the causes of the events are given such short shrift that it almost feels like Little uses the novel more as an excuse to showcase brutality and depravity, rather than examine its effects. I went through too many scenes wincing, rather than wondering what was going on. And when the forces behind the events in the novel are finally revealed, I found myself disappointed. It’s an interesting villain behind it all, but given so little face time that it’s barely seen at all. Most of Little’s villains are faceless and operate entirely through intermediaries, but the villain here seems mishandled, even clumsily written.
In general, I enjoy Bentley Little’s novels, and I recommend him. The Academy, however, is not his strongest novel, and I can’t recommend it to anyone.